The controversy of the Lamu Coal Power Station, Kenya

Wycliffe Omondi 

The scramble for Africa’s abundant, unexploited minerals and natural resources has of late invited a new scramble by powers from within and without the continent. These new trends, especially along the coast of East Africa, are closely linked with oil and gas prospecting industries, major seaports’ and road network constructions which are stipulated to bring development to East Africa and Kenya in particular. However, more often such development projects may also be potential threats to the rich marine cultural heritage if not well planned.

Ever since I started working in the heritage sector I have always been fascinated by the antagonistic relationships between cultural heritage conservation and development. Coincidentally, I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham where my research focuses on the critical examination and analysis of cultural heritage conservation as a driver for local community sustainable development with specific reference sites along the Kenya coast.

One area that has of late attracted major infrastructural development in Kenya is Lamu archipelago located on the northern coast of Kenya. The area has been earmarked as the convergence point for a US$29.2 billion Lapsset (Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport) Corridor program by the Government of Kenya (GoK). The archipelago is a system of six inhabited islands that are closely interconnected not only with the Islands but also with the surrounding environment including the mainland, in terms of fishing grounds, culture, family ties, mangrove forests and farmlands.

The Lapsset program has several components including the development of a seaport with 32 deep sea berths at Manda Bay (three berths are currently under construction), a standard gauge railway line to Juba and Addis Ababa, a road network, oil pipelines to and from South Sudan and Ethiopia, an oil refinery, three international airports and three resort cities at Lamu, Isiolo and Lake Turkana shores corridor. This program is part of the Government of Kenya’s national development strategy Vision 2030 economic pillar which aims at transforming Kenya into an industrialized middle income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030 in a “clean and secure environment.”

Controversially, a coal power plant, Lamu Coal Power Station (LCPS), is to be developed in order to operate as part of Lapsset. Alongside the development of Lamu Port, resorts and the oil pipelines this power station is envisaged as one of the key catalysts in the development of Lamu. It must be built to provide electricity to make the development and subsequent habitation possible.

Coal Development site in Lamu Kenya

The proposed LCPS is located on the mainland near Lamu Island’s Old Town – a Unesco World Heritage site. The Old Town is considered one of the oldest and best preserved living Swahili towns whose golden age is believed to have been the period between 17th century and 19th century under Omani control. Inscription of Lamu Old Town into Unesco’s World Heritage List in 2001 was due to its architecture and urban structures that reveal the interaction of cultural influences of Africa, Asia and Europe over centuries to produce a distinctive Swahili culture. In addition it is considered a significant centre for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures. A traditional function it has retained for centuries up to date.

Coast of Lamu Kenya

Due to the fragile nature of Lamu’s environment and culture, concerns were raised by local community members and NGOs’ such as Save LamuNatural Justice and Katiba Institute on the potential irreversible changes on the delicate natural environment and rapid disruption of the towns cultural traditions which forms an integral part of Lamu identity.

Despite local opposition to the coal power plant, the Government of Kenya awarded Amu Power Company (APC) the development rights in September 2014 (deal valued at approximately US$2 billion). APC is a consortium of Centum Investments Company Limited (a Kenyan private equity firm), Gulf Energy (a Kenyan energy generating company) and Sichuan Electric Power Design and Consulting Company Limited (SEDC) which is a subsidiary of Power Construction Corporation of China (Power China). Subsequently in mid- 2017, a 25 year Power purchase agreement between Lamu Coal Power Station with the investor Amu power, was singed in China witnessed by the President of Kenya, with guarantee from African Development Bank, even though the project is a private investment. “The President’s presence at the signing was likely arranged by the promoters of the project to shore up support for it,” according to David Ndii (2017), a Kenyan Daily Nation Newspaper columnist. However, the construction has repeatedly been halted due to opposition by environmentalists and human rights groups, for the plant will lead to air pollution, destruction of mangroves and breeding grounds for endangered species of marine turtles, fish and other marine life. The latest suspension of the project is a decision made in 2018 by a Kenyan court, sending the dispute back to National Environment Tribunal.

Obviously Kenya does not need to buy wind or solar along the coast of Kenya.  According to World Economic Forum Report 2018, wind has no clean-up costs either. It stands to reason then, that the wind plant beats coal hands down on cost and efficiency. For the case of LCPS, coal will have to be purchased and ferried all the way from South Africa to Lamu, hence incurring additional cost.

Last week, more intrigue emerged about the coal plant, after Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a US based philanthropic research and analyses organization that focuses on financial and economic issues related to energy and the environment, revealed in its report entitled, The Proposed Lamu Coal Plant: The Wrong Choice for Kenya,’ argues that even if the plant never generates any power Kenya will still have to pay heavily for generated electricity.  “That the Coal project true costs during the years 2024 through 2037 could average as high as US$22 to US$75  per KWh.” That is three to 10 times the company’s initial 2014 projection. IEEFA, also admits that the planned 981MW Lamu coal plant is outright a poor investment—“except for the few companies backing the proposal and the Chinese firm contracted to build it.”  Therefore “Kenya should cancel the project.”

Kenya has also pledged in several international platforms to move the country to 100% renewable energy – the coal plant is surely the antithesis of this aim.

On the 24th June the National Environment Tribunal (NET)  in Nairobi revoked a permit issued for the contentious project. They cancelled an environmental impact assessment licence for the Lamu coal project, ruling that “the circumstances under which it was issued were flawed.”

However, will this judgement stand?

Will there be an appeal?

This happened in a previous court case between Lapsset and Lamu community members in April 2018  where despite the fact that the High Court of Kenya declared that the construction of the Lamu Port failed basic constitutional and legal requirements (including violations of legal procedure on public participation, the right to information, the right to a clean and healthy environment and right to culture) and the government should pay US $17Million in compensation to 4,600 fishermen in Lamu County,  the Kenya Ports Authority nonetheless filed a Notice of Appeal on the grounds that, “the judges of the lower court gave orders which had not been pleaded” and successfully obtained orders from the Court of Appeal suspending the implementation of the judgment. Consequently, despite the judgment, the Lamu Port construction continues unaffected by the decision, dashing petitioners’ expectations of seeing the project proponents take tangible steps to implement the court’s judgment. Equally the fishermen are still waiting for their compensation.

What is the way forward for Lamu community members, if the judgement is upheld or otherwise? Are the project planners sensitive to heritage? Do they understand that heritage is intertwined with a people’s identity, worldview and their livelihoods?

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